The unique basket art of Joan Brink has attracted a wide following of admirers.
By Nancy Ellis
(FOCUS/SANTA FE/June/July 2000, 36-39)

A Joan Brink basket is a thing of beauty to the eye of any beholder. It also is a thing of wonder, as one can only guess at the number of hours it took her to design and construct such an exquisite object of art. Many of Brink’s shapes and colors are reminiscent of southwestern pottery, but her primary material — cane — certainly has never been native to New Mexico. Sensing in her work an amalgamation, a combining and unique reinterpretation, one would definitely be on the right track.

Sitting in her Santa Fe studio, Brink leans over a large new vessel she has been constructing. You can feel her profound respect for this piece by the way she holds it, and by her state of concentration—”dreaming,” she calls it — as she imagines the story unfolding in her artwork. It will take at least a month for Brink to weave this one, which includes a beautiful rim and base made by her husband Joel out of ebonized tropical walnut.

Joan Brink is a mature artist who started out as a painter and who earned a considerable reputation designing gardens before turning full time to her passion for basketry. “From the moment I started weaving, I had an immediate affinity for basketry,” she recalls. “It hit me on the heart level.” What she is able to bring to the complex design and construction of these baskets is a deep reflection of her
extraordinarily rich and varied life.

Born in New Orleans, but with strong family ties to Nantucket Island, she graduated with a degree in fine art from Connecticut College for Women. It was in the east that she met her husband, a native of Nebraska who eventually earned a doctorate in art history and later became a fellow at the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. For the next 20 years the Brinks lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he taught at the University of British Columbia and she studied Navajo-style coiled basketry with Marvin Cohodas, an authority on the baskets of Dat so la lee, master weaver of the Washoe tribe.

The Brink’s two daughters (now, not surprisingly, both professional artists) grew up between Nantucket, Vancouver, and Italy, where the family lived for five years in a 300-year-olf stone farmhouse in Tuscany while Joel was a Harvard Fellow. Here, Joan was able to gather basket-making materials from the surrounding fields and tend her huge gardens of vegetables and flowers, as well as her growing daughters.

Throughout the years, the Brink family continued to vacation at a family cottage on Nantucket, and here Joan became fascinated with the traditional lightship baskets native to the island. These were not coiled, but rather woven of cane around variously shaped wooden molds.

During the 1980’s, she turned her attention to the traditional lightship purse, a form of covered basket often secured with ivory knobs and pins. Back in Vancouver, she began to include Haida imagery by using incised argillite lid plaques and pins from master carver Pat Dixon. Her basketry developed a strong following of clients and representation in galleries in Vancouver and throughout the United States.

As Joan Brink’s basket-making evolved, a new collaboration with her husband became crucial. Although he had no previous woodworking skills, Joel agreed to acquire them, and soon he was producing elegant steam-bent, laminated, and carved handles. Now he also makes rims, bases, staves, and molds for her current vessel forms. Retired from teaching, he has become a craftsman whose work has become an integral part of his wife’s baskets.

The Brinks were attracted to New Mexico seven years ago when a friend who bought an old hacienda in Santa Cruz invited them to come down to design the flower gardens. Instantly smitten with New Mexico, they soon sold their house in Vancouver and relocated to Santa Fe. Here Joan has been able to concentrate full time on baskets, and Joel has honed his collaborative skills in their small backyard workshop.

Joan’s baskets have continued to increase in size, thanks to Joel’s creative adaptations of the necessary molds, and she is thrilled to have a larger surface upon which to weave her dreams. “I do a sketch in my book, not on graph paper, but you do have to work it out mathematically,” she points out.

A profusion of gardens surrounds the Brink’s charming adobe home in the historic district of old Santa Fe, and a stray cat who adopted the couple several years ago sleeps comfortably in a chair by the fireplace. It is indeed a warm and welcoming place.

“Nature has always been my inspiration,” Joan explains, whether she’s designing a colorful garden or meditating on her newest basket design. “The beauty path — a Navajo spiritual concept—touches loosely on my own philosophy. A basket formed of natural fibers and shaped by hand can be a statement of the same recognition.”

Looking at one of her intriguing baskets, like “Seven Sisters,” with its symbolism of fire and water and theme of transformation, there can be no question that Joan Brink is a familiar traveler on the path of beauty.